Movie Review: The Sky is Pink

Josh Fox, whose 2010 Gasland was nominated by the Academy for Best Feature Documentary in 2011, has followed up on hydraulic fracturing with The Sky is Pink, an 18-minute documentary addressing attacks on Gasland and New York State’s moratorium on hydraulic fracturing.[1] Despite allegations by the NY Post, oil lobbyists, and the American Petroleum Institute that Gasland and The Sky is Pink are based upon unfounded science and serve as propaganda for a liberal political agenda, HBO has agreed to carry Gasland 2, another feature length documentary by Josh Fox on the subject. Production is underway and although delayed, should be released forthwith.

Although the technology behind hydraulic fracturing is not new, the impacts on ground water from increased hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas has become one of the largest environmental issues facing the Country. The exemption of hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act permitting scheme by the 2005 Energy Policy Act only exacerbated the environmental and social-justice issues at stake. See 42 U.S.C. § 15801. An indication of the public sentiment on the issue of hydraulic fracturing is reflected in the fact that the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) received 66,000 submissions in response to their request for public comments on the issue. State and local regulation of hydraulic fracturing is the only regulatory check on the controversial mining practice at this time in the United States. Josh Fox’s The Sky is Pink singled out New York because the State’s moratorium on hydraulic fracturing is currently being evaluated. In response to DEC’s request for a 90-day extension to make the final decision whether to continue or lift the moratorium to complete a health-impact study, natural-gas developer Lenape Resources Inc. filed suit on November 15, 2012.

The title, “The Sky is Pink,” is a comment, not on climate change and ecological destruction as may be initially presumed, but rather on the dialogue that surrounds the issue of hydraulic fracturing and the place of science in American politics generally. The message is that science has been substantially undermined by bad journalism and the problem has been exacerbated by corruption in the post-Citizens United[2] political theater of America; Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett received $1.6 million in campaign funds from oil and gas PACs and Pennsylvania’s former governor now works as a lobbyist for the Marcelus Shale Coalition. As a Pittsburg City Councilman stated in the film, the majority of media coverage on fracturing does not involve investigative journalism, but rather a game of he-said-she-said, meaning a statement unsupported by fact or science stated by one side of a debate is taken as truth and presented as a legitimate position by the media unless rebutted by a party with a counter-veiling interest. In this post-modern subjective reality, if somebody says “the sky is pink,” the sky is pink until somebody responds “no the sky is blue.” And that is essentially what The Sky is Pink is doing: rebutting the statements of oil companies that discredited Gasland. The Sky is Pink does not present new information or arguments about why hydraulic fracturing is dangerous that were not present in Gasland. The Sky is Pink provides a medium for Fox to defend Gasland from attacks by oil and gas companies while applying those previously stated implications of hydraulic fracturing to the State of New York.

In the binary dialogue that exists between Josh Fox and gas companies, only one camp can be right and one camp can be wrong. Someone is lying about the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on ground water resources. To persuade the viewer that he is telling the truth and that it is his detractors who are lying, or at the least purposefully misleading the public, Josh Fox draws a parallel between the state of the media’s coverage of hydraulic fracturing, and the advertising campaigns and Congressional testimony of Tobacco companies in the 1950s, denying that tobacco caused cancer when they had conducted internal studies that indicated the contrary. The parallel is made all the tidier by the fact that both industries – tobacco and hydraulic fracturing – used the PR firm, Hill & Nolton to develop their public relations strategy.

As in Gasland, The Sky is Pink mostly consists of Josh Fox’s dead-serious monotone unveiling internal memos from oil companies admitting that hydraulic fracturing wells inevitably leak petrochemicals into ground water. This format is interspersed with interviews of politicians, scientists, and the Americans affected by the adverse impacts of hydraulic fracturing; comic relief is provided from Tom Ridge’s appearance on The Colbert Report. The Sky is Pink’s rapid-fire facts and presentation of studies, Federal reports, oil company internal memos, and academic research is for the most part incomprehensible due to the flood of information; but as indicated by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth the presentation of science to the general public at a cognizably slow rate may have little impact on changing how people perceive the world. It merely preaches to the choir and alienates the skeptics. People aren’t usually persuaded by facts, but rather fit their notion of reality to conform to a preconceived narrative. If Josh Fox’s post-modernist conception of an irrational reality is onto anything, and it is according to Jonah Lehrer’s popular science New Yorker Blog The Frontal Cortex explaining the concept of cognitive dissonance, The Sky is Pink is an effective study of persuasion through drawing upon the viewer’s pre-conceived narratives of corporate lies and perjury rather than presenting data and results from scientific studies.

[1] Hydraulic fracturing consists of injecting process water into the earth at an extremely high pressure to extract natural gas. The pressure caused by the mix of injected water and chemicals causes the shale rock to fracture and allows natural gas to be mined after the fluid is removed. EPA is in the process of studying the potential impact of Hydraulic Fracturing on drinking water resources. EPA’s pending study can be found here.

[2]  Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 558 U.S. 310 (2010) (recognizing corporate personhood in the context of First Amendment political speech and legitimizing corporate contributions to political campaigns).


One comment

  1. The break-out success of GasLand and GasLand 2 prompted the natural gas and drilling industry to adopt an aggressive public relations strategy to combat critics. Last year, at the Warner Theater in Washington, DC, a group of high-profile lobbyists and communications staffers celebrated the development of a pro-fracking movie designed to rebut Fox’s documentaries called TruthLand, which premiered in January.

    Recently filed tax documents show the link between industry and TruthLand is much stronger than previously reported. The movie was funded with a $1 million grant from a DC-based trade group called America’s Natural Gas Alliance, a consortium of fracking firms including Devon Energy, Apache, Noble Energy, Range Resources, XTO Energy, Southwestern Energy and Pioneer Natural Resources, among others.

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